Archive for June, 2013

In late January of 1936, Bonhoeffer in the midst of his first year leading the new seminary at Finkenwalde, reflected on the path that had taken him thus far. He wrote to a former girlfriend, Elizabeth Zinn, a letter which is one of the most personal self-revelations of all that he wrote. (See the posting from June 29 for an extended excerpt from the letter.)

He tells her that he had plunged into his work in a very unchristian way, a way marked by ambition. He was quite accustomed to being outstanding in everything that he did and certainly could have become one of Germany’s premier academic theologians. Clearly this was a real temptation to him yet integrity kept drawing him in a different direction.

When he went to New York on a graduate fellowship to study at Union Seminary, he found no challenge in American education but was deeply influenced by four friendships. One was with a French student named Jean Laserre, a pacifist who helped him see that the Bible – and especially the Sermon on the Mount – was to be lived, not merely studied as an historical document or as a set of impossible ideals.

In this letter he seems to refer to that period, though he gives no details and we cannot be certain. Whenever it was, “Something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible. . .” That of course is not literally true. He had long been a good student of the Bible, had learned Bible lessons from his mother throughout all his childhood, and had even sensed that contemporary biblical scholarship was failing to appreciate the Bible adequately.

What he discovered was that the Bible is a living document, still being breathed out by the Spirit of God. It was not merely yesterday’s word but today’s, still being spoken into the hearts of the listeners and still providing realistic guidance for living as God’s people. Learning to hear the Bible afresh as a love letter from God, as he later put it, was so transforming that he looked back on the time as having been the time when he became a Christian.

He had been devoted to the idea of Jesus Christ but suddenly found himself called to be a follower of the living Christ. Jesus Christ is a person, not a doctrine. “It was a great liberation,” he wrote.

Rather than seeing this following in a merely personal, inward way as that exemplified by the Pietists (and by most modern Evangelicals like myself), Bonhoeffer saw immediately that “the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church.” To be a servant of Christ means to be a servant of the fellowship of believers.

As an idea of the church, this was not entirely new thinking. His doctoral dissertation in 1927, entitled “The Communion of Saints,” had set forth the idea that we meet Jesus Christ in the community of believers. Now, however, the priority was reversed. He was following not a Christ intermingled into or lost in the church, but who was the living Lord of the church.

Two years after Dietrich returned from New York, Hitler came to power. Most than most, Bonhoeffer realized that this marked a dramatic and disastrous change for Germany. He began to see the church as being the bulwark against the evils he was sure would quickly follow. And they certainly did. Hitler’s demonic ways were quickly made apparent as he intimidated Parliament, struck out against the Jews, enticed the university scholars, and overpowered the church – all within six months.

With a few others, Bonhoeffer began to see that “the revival of the church and of the ministry” was the primary need of the day. This was only a first step, of course, in the longer process of seeing that he was responsible not just to protect the church but Germany itself and, eventually, all the world from Hitler and all he represented.

At the early period of which he is writing, he already knows that the path will be long and difficult, though he cannot yet imagine the lengths to which he would be called in challenging evil. “If only we can hold out,” he wrote, realizing in however vague a way that the battle to come was of monumental proportions.

The little boy who had once promised his mother that he would protect her from the wild creature (a dragonfly!), would eventually give his life to protect the world from a true monster.

Years later, writing while sitting in prison for his part in the failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, Dietrich wrote that there had been a point when he “turned from the phraseological to the real,” a time when he deepened his inner commitment from words to the reality God was presenting to him. It seems clear that he was referring to the same period as he had in his letter to Zinn. Discovering that Jesus Christ is a living person, rather than a doctrine, made all the difference in Bonhoeffer’s seldom-traveled road.

As I think back to the early lessons I was taught when I became a Christian at age 20, I can see that I was expected to learn that Jesus was alive and present during my Quiet Time, my daily devotions, but that, having “spent a little time with God,” I was then free to live my life on my own, calling on God only to help me when I got into situations over my head. Later, while engaged in campus ministry, I saw three kinds of Christian students. The first (to use just one issue as an example) asked God to bless the marriage they were choosing. The second asked God to lead them to the right person to marry. And a small handful asked, “Lord, do you want me to marry?”

Alas, it seems it will always be but a small handful who entrust every decision to the Lord. Few will realize that we are called to walk Jesus’ path with him rather than expecting him to walk and bless the path we feel like walking for ourselves.


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In the last post we looked at the first of three letters which give us a special glimpse into what made Bonhoeffer tick, what made him as a person. The second letter, written to a former girlfriend named Elizabeth Zinn (later the wife of theologian Gunther Bornkamm) in January of 1936. It is long but so fascinating that I cannot resist quoting it fairly extensively. Because of its length, I’ll refrain from comment until the next post. He is telling her about the period some four years earlier when he committed himself to Jesus Christ with a transforming new depth.  (The letter is found in the biography by Eberhard Bethge on page 204. It will appear in full in the forthcoming Volume 14 of the series Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works in English.)

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1/27/1936, to Elizabeth Zinn (Bornkamm) (DB 204)
“I plunged into my work in a very unchristian way. An . . .ambition that many noticed in me made my life difficult. . . .
“Then something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible. . . I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it – but I had not yet become a Christian. . . .
“I know that at that time I turned the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage for myself. . . I pray to God that will never happen again. Also I had never prayed, or prayed only very little. For all my loneliness, I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people about me. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became clearer to me how far this must go.
“Then came the crisis of 1933. This strengthened me in it. Also I now found others who shared this purpose with me. The revival of the church and of the ministry became my supreme concern..
“I suddenly saw the Christian pacifism that I had recently passionately opposed as self-evident – during the defense of my dissertation, where Gerhard [Jacobi] was also present. And so it went on, step by step. I no longer saw or thought anything else. . . .
“My calling is quite clear to me. What God will make of it I do not know. . . .
“I must follow the path. Perhaps it will not be such a long one. Sometimes we wish that it were so (Philippians 1:23). But it is a fine thing to have realized my calling. . . .
“I believe that the nobility of this calling will become plain to us only in the times and events to come. If only we can hold out!”

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer threw himself wholeheartedly into whatever he was doing, whether having foot races with his seminarians at Finkenwalde, calling the church to awaken to the danger of Hitler, or participating in the plot to assassinate the Fuhrer. Yet there was always a certain, very German reserve about him. He kept his emotions and his motivations to himself. That just seemed to him the proper thing to do.

Some of the most personal revelations about himself came in letters to friends and family, three letters in particular. The first was written January 1 1935 to his brother Karl-Friedrich, the physicist and agnostic. He wrote:

When I first started in theology, my idea of it was quite different – rather more academic, probably. Now it has turned into something else altogether. But I do believe that at last I am on the right track, for the first time in my life. I often feel quite happy about it. I only worry about being so afraid of what other people will think as to get bogged down instead of going forward. I think I am right in saying that I would only achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really staring to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Here alone lies the force that can blow all this hocus-pocus sky-high, like fireworks, leaving only a few burnt-out shells behind.

Just a few months later, Bonhoeffer established the underground seminary on behalf of the Confessing Church. The life of the school was built around the Sermon on the Mount, which now had three levels of importance to him: personal, political, educational.

Personally, he had learned the Sermon on the Mount from his friend at Union Seminary in New York, the French pacifist Jean Laserre. It was not just the content of the Sermon that mattered to him but, just as importantly, the attitude with which Laserre approached the text. Dietrich had accepted without much thought the common idea that the Sermon is a statement of impossible ideals. Laserre, to the contrary, believed the message was to be obeyed and actually lived. Reading the Sermon on the Mount not as God’s wish for us but as God’s expectation of us brought a deep personal transformation to Bonhoeffer. It was as if he no longer believed in a distant God who has merely taught us a few ideas about himself but now served a living Lord who stood before him with direct guidance for his life. Bonhoeffer was never the same.

Politically, we see in the letter that the disgusting fraudulence (the “hocus-pocus”) of Hitler and the Nazis could be challenged not by overt power but by a living and lived-out faith in the words of the Sermon. If God’s people across Germany would begin to take seriously that Sermon, Hitler’s power would be broken.

Educationally, Bonhoeffer envisioned an entirely new way of preparing future pastors. “The restoration of the church,” he continued in the letter to his brother, “must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount.” That’s exactly what he did in the seminary, creating a blend of monastery and school and church. He lectured regularly on the Sermon. The substance of those lectures became the book “Cost of Discipleship.”

Clearly the encounter with Jean Laserre had a profound effect upon Dietrich. This effect was strengthened by his contacts with the Black churches of Harlem, to which he was introduced by another friend, Frank Fisher. In those churches, especially Abyssiniam Baptist, he found a faith that was open, deeply personal, and very lively. Never again would he be able to me a merely academic theologian. He was no longer studying theology but learning the ways of the living Lord.

And that made all the difference. . .

[Next posting: A letter to a former girl friend]

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Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Mataxas was interviewed by Glenn Beck on December 10, 2010. It is available on YouTube. Beck begins with comments about how – in his view – the “Left” has badly misunderstood Bonhoeffer by saying “he is a social justice guy.” It is clear that both “Left” and “social justice guy” are pejorative code words for Beck, needing no explanation.

Metaxas then makes the important point that, contrary to what some have thought, Bonhoeffer did not leave his biblical and theological foundations in his later years but remained a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer, Metaxas emphasizes, was never like the liberal theologians with whom he studied. Unfortunately, showing a certain American provincialism, Metaxas seems to assume that if a Christian is not a liberal, he must be an evangelical. That is a very poor assumption which is not supported by the facts at all. Bonhoeffer and the modern Evangelical are much alike in many ways but overlapping ideas and commitments does not make us identical twins. Metaxas demonstrates this very conclusively by not correcting Beck about “the social justice guys.”

When Dietrich wrote in 1933 that the church must protest against injustice at the hands of the state and bind up the wounds of those injured by the state’s injustice and even do whatever it can to stop the wheels of the state’s injustice, was he not describing “social justice” very perfectly? And did he not live out this prescription very fully?

The juxtaposition of Beck with his code words and Metaxas with his unexamined assumptions is almost comical. They reinforce one another’s blindness.

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